Three Years in Turkey
In 2009 in the fall I came to Turkey — to Adana in the Southeast — to teach English as a Second Language. Now after three years in Turkey (and as many schools) I am finishing up my time here and getting to know “Illustrious Istanbul” a bit before I depart. For this summative post, I wanted to write up an account of life here as a foreigner and offer my honest attempt at cultural analysis to whomsoever wishes to read it.
This place has been interesting. There’s a lot that can be and is usually said about Turkey. I would agree with most any travel book on the culture, the traditions, noteworthy things to do and go and see and on and on. But I am interested in more than just these things. There are more subtle and profound things to be teased out. And this takes time.
On the one hand, I love the people’s general hospitality, the food, the depth of history, the ruins, and all that. On the other hand, it has been a fascinating anthropological study, one in which sometimes I am less than objective, admittedly. Interesting to note is the way the currents of authoritarian rule still seem to guide and direct the energies of the people, despite an overtly successful transition to democracy here in 1923. The old Empire fell not very long ago, and surely there were hangers-on in the new power vacuum – Islamists, Secular Bureaucrats, and other ‘Nobility’.
The new democracy that sprung from this has been a shaky one, evidenced by the many coups to take back power that have occurred in the name of “Ataturk”, the nation’s founder, and his secular-democratic principles. I now feel that all the centralization, the episodes of power-consolidation, the bureaucracies both imperial and democratic, have led to a strong DIY or “DIF” (Do-It-with-the-help-of-your-Family) disposition in the masses on the one hand, but that’s not all…
When I see the fierce competitiveness (and sometimes downright rudeness) between people — when the vehicle I’m in gets cut off on the highway, when someone cuts in front at the bank, blocks off an entire aisle in the grocery store, when I try to cross the street and just barely make it — in these behaviors I see, these experiences I have, I actually sense great disempowerment at the root of it all. And it’s Might Makes Right, through and through. (Car bigger than person? Car wins. Get the heck out of the way. He ain’t slowin’ down…) Indeed, what better impetus for such behaviors and attitudes than an entrenched, essentially authoritarian system, a culture obsessed and lured falsely by the gods of Power, Wealth, and Prestige?
It happens all over the world, but in Turkey it’s two clashing world views – Secular-Democratic-Capitalism & Nostalgic-Islamic-Imperialism — one in its end-stage having only barely begun to begin here, and one long since dead — that continue to squash the populace, press them and cage them in psychically…
It is of the utmost importance, then, to be patriotic, to support your team, your country, your leader. It is of the utmost importance to be rich — or maybe more to appear rich; i.e. not look poor… Saving face is huge; confrontation avoided if it’s not a fist fight brewing — let no one put the blame on you. Women stay home and raise the kids. Talk about shopping, and clothing, and cute babies. Whatever you do, don’t read books. Especially not foreign ones. Etc… It’s a bit of hyperbole to say everyone acts thusly. But such values and behaviors as a socio-economic-and-political outcome… This is an interesting and different way to view it all.
People fall prey to the illusions, the delusions of power, sense of control, the adrenaline of a football rivalry, the lust for wealth, for shiny things. We do it in The States, too, perhaps with American Football replacing Soccer, or maybe greater religious or ethnic tensions than Turkey has. The point being, when the system is such that you have to step on someone, on anyone and everyone to get ahead, when you don’t feel you can trust anyone but your family, when everyone else on the road is an asshole … Hell! What’s a person to do?
So I don’t really blame the individuals themselves anymore; I try to see them through this gradually-coming-into-focus economic and sociopolitical filter-lense I’ve created… Still it’s hard to be happy in a place where I can hardly cross the street without feeling like I am going to get run over, like some car is ‘purposely’ going to try to swerve towards me as it passes, where people don’t move mutually for each other on the sidewalk, but wait to see if the approaching person will first yield to THEM. It is a vicious passive-aggressiveness (and sometimes just pure-aggressiveness) that I’ve learned to cope with. Understanding the likely roots of it – scarcity, disempowerment, materialistic delusion, greed, lust for power, etc. – this has been the hardest part. For they always say, the WHY of a culture is Deep Deep Down under the surface of the water, like the body of the iceberg. Behaviors, attitudes, traditions, all are laid bare on the surface, but usually sans explanation – and if you do get one, you can count on it too, to be superficial. After all, who of us can cogently express the WHY behind our own activities and actions, those of our home cultures or even of ourselves as individuals? For example…
I once put it to my 9th grade students in Adana, asked them what they thought and if they could explain what was going on… I had just gotten ready for the school day and was pushing the front door of the building open to leave, cross the street, and catch my bus. Never a problem. Today though, I noticed a woman standing outside looking a bit impatient or flustered as I opened the door. And in the span of less than a second — between unlatching and pushing open the door to my apartment building — the lady squeezed past me, pushing me back slightly in the process. All this before I could even take a step outside — and without a word to me thankful or otherwise. So I put it to my students. I asked them why they thought she’d not waited until I at least left the space of the door frame. And many said it was rude and that they couldn’t understand it — I was opening the door for her after all (perhaps she’d lost her key?). But one student (Dilara let’s call her…) proceeded to argue adamantly with me that she must have had a really good reason not to wait, that her husband was probably waiting for her upstairs and she’d better get there now, and that obviously I should just understand it, let it go; surely she’s more important than me anyways, right? What I took from this, besides the obvious point that the rushed, inconsiderate, unappreciative lady was just, well, rude, was that I had struck a nerve with Dilara, questioning deep, cultural values and motives, challenging them albeit unintentionally, and she went into defensive mode, gave the ‘rude lady’ the benefit of the doubt over me, the foreign teacher.
I will offer up similarly the story of my own biased and inaccurate conveyance of American cultural values to my Japanese friend (Chikako, let’s call her) who was about to embark on a terrifying journey into the heart of her American fiancee’s family’s homestead… I tried to convey to her that all she had to do was greet the family politely, say a few things to show her appreciation towards her hosts, and try to make conversation as best she could. I told her not to worry, that unlike Japanese people, Americans were pretty direct and honest with how they felt about you, that she’d probably receive a warm welcome, etc. Boy was I wrong! She related to me afterwards that the family members acted in subtle, passive-aggressive ways, were hardly direct or open or sharing, and were less than welcoming or honest. She had an awful time (likely much worse because I’d given her that pep talk). I realized then that Americans have equal if not greater propensity than Japanese people to insincerity and indirect, passive-aggresive behavior. In short, I had been projecting the negative from my culture onto Japanese culture.
My own fundamental assumptions about my culture and countryfolk reared their ugly heads in this process. This made me think harder than ever on the question of what American culture actually was. What were the values and motives driving us? And in my reflections I came to understand Japanese culture much more clearly.
I have also undergone similar processes with Spain and Nicaragua, and I had a lot of help in this. The cultures were closer in proximity to American culture, and I had excellent, insightful professors from various Spanish-speaking countries to share as best they could the depths of their respective home cultures. This has all added to my ability to put things in perspective, to be able to reach this point, but (man!) three years is a long time! If anything though, this speaks ultimately to the richness and depth of Turkish culture. It’s been a tough and engaging puzzle…
As a final note, I will admit that Turkey as a whole has been skewed these last six months while I’ve been living in Istanbul, the Megalopolis of 13+ Million. Big City Life produces anxiety, raises my blood pressure; there are more cars on the road, naturally more competition to get where you’re going, etc. But I’ve also experienced Tokyo and sometimes I reminisce about it… There were so so many people there: Two million went through my ‘local’ Shinjuku train and subway station every day! But here’s the thing: No one ran into me. … With that said, the reason I wish to distinguish now between city and non-big-city Turkey is that some of the nicest people I have ever met lived in the smaller places here: Cappadocia, Harran, Tarsus, Iskenderun, etc. Bless them, those smaller-town Turkish folk! I should stress, though: I think it is when I’m perceived as a visitor, a guest, that I feel welcome and safe and warm-all-over. When it comes to being a resident and actually trying to live here all the other (above) things come out and I find I’m just another no-name man for the other guy to compete with. It’s truly a shame. But I think now I’m starting to understand it. It’s all part-and-parcel of life for an American living and working in Turkey.
TL;DR: Travel here; don’t live in the big cities.